Column: He hasn’t smoked in decades. But Hertz is hitting him with a $400 smoking fee

A Hertz car rental building
A Highland Park man, who says he hasn’t smoked for 25 years, was told by Hertz to pay a $400 fee after workers at the rental-car firm claimed they smelled cigarettes.
(Associated Press)

Customers may not always be right, but it doesn’t hurt to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially as businesses struggle to recover from the pandemic.

At the very least, you don’t want to call your customers liars.

Yet that’s basically what rental-car giant Hertz is telling a member of its Gold Plus rewards program after slapping him with a $400 charge for smoking in the car.

Sean Dungan, a professional photographer, recently dropped off a Hertz rental car at Boston’s Logan International Airport before flying back to Los Angeles.


A few days later, the bill arrived via email, including the smoking fee.

Here’s the thing: Dungan, 49, says he doesn’t smoke.

“I did a long time ago,” the Highland Park resident told me, “when I was maybe 22 or 23. Not since.”

He said no smokers joined him on his five-day business trip to the Boston area, and nobody lit up in the rental car. No cigs. No vaping. No weed. No stogies.

“I was the only person in the car,” Dungan said. “I don’t smoke.”

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So he called Hertz, which also owns the Dollar and Thrifty brands, battled his way through the company’s automated phone system and reached a service rep. “I just assumed a mistake had been made.”

Not as far as Hertz was concerned.

“Everybody I spoke with at the company said they wouldn’t reverse the charge,” Dungan recalled. “They all said that after I dropped off the car, a Hertz employee smelled cigarette smoke and that he corroborated it with another employee.”

I asked Dungan if there were any cigarette butts reported in the ashtray.


Were there any ashes reported on the seats or carpets?


So it was a couple of workers saying they thought someone had smoked in the vehicle without any physical proof?


“Yes, that’s it.”

Not exactly an open-and-shut case.

Hertz introduced a no-smoking rule in 2013. Prior to that, it had cars for smokers and cars for nonsmokers.

“Hertz is committed to providing a safe, clean fleet for our customers and employees,” the company says online. “In order to better deliver on this commitment, all Hertz vehicles are nonsmoking. A $400 cleaning fee will be assessed for vehicles returned with evidence of smoking.”

Ah, but this “evidence of smoking” provision is a bit squishy.

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According to Hertz, a vehicle will be considered smoked in if a company worker witnesses a customer smoking, finds proof of smoking (“such as ashes, cigarette butts or burns”) or smells smoke inside.

“If there is no Instant Return Representative available when the car is returned, the Vehicle Service Attendant will make the determination,” Hertz says.

That’s apparently what happened in Dungan’s case. After he left his car at the lot and headed for his flight, a vehicle service attendant presumably popped his head in and decided he smelled cigarettes.

Then, Hertz reps told Dungan, the vehicle service attendant got another worker to give things a sniff. Then they added the $400 smoking fee to Dungan’s bill.

There are a number of things here that raise questions, not least this idea that a couple of workers can levy a fat fee without any physical proof of wrongdoing.

Dungan wonders if it was the Hertz attendant who introduced a cigarette smell to the car. “Was he a smoker? Did he have the smell on his clothes? I don’t know.”

Then there’s the timing. Hertz filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2020, one of the largest companies to do so during the pandemic.

The company’s stock surged last month after Hertz announced a multibillion-dollar deal with several investment firms to restore the company’s finances. A year ago, Hertz warned investors its stock could end up being worthless.

I’m not saying Hertz is imposing bogus fees on customers to improve the company’s balance sheet as it prepares to emerge from bankruptcy by the end of the month. Hertz says Dungan’s fee was “assessed appropriately.”

But you still have to wonder.

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Christopher Elliott, who runs a consumer protection website called Elliott Advocacy, included Dungan’s situation in a recent article on rental car smoking fees.

“We’ve gotten a lot of smoking-fee complaints, almost all from Hertz customers,” he told me. “We saw a spike in cases after the bankruptcy filing.”

Rental car companies “turn to these types of fees to generate extra revenue,” Elliott said. “If you smoke in a rental car, you should pay a cleaning fee. But all of our cases involve customers who say they don’t smoke.”

I know, I know. It’s possible all these people are actually smokers and are just trying to dodge a fee by making a stink.

But it’s my experience that consumers who jump through the time-consuming hoops of a corporate appeals process, and particularly those who reach out to the media for help, tend not to be pulling a fast one.

Dungan estimates he’s spent at least four hours so far trying to untangle this with Hertz — not the sort of time commitment most people would make to weasel out of a fee.

After he got nowhere with Hertz’s front-line service reps, Dungan contacted the head office. Once again the company dug in its heels.

An official insisted by email that “a strong cigarette smell” had been detected in the car. Even so, the official said, Hertz would cut the fee in half, to $200, “as a one-time goodwill gesture.”

“We ask that you respect our final decision on this matter as we have fully addressed your concerns,” the official concluded. “Further requests to revisit this matter will not be considered.”

Dungan told me he doesn’t respect Hertz’s final decision. He says he didn’t do anything wrong.

“If they think I’m at fault, why would they refund any of the fee?” Dungan asked.

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Lauren Luster, a Hertz spokeswoman, told me the 50% fee cut was “a gesture of goodwill” because of Dungan’s “loyalty status.” She also said Hertz won’t back down.

“Our records show that three employees confirmed the smell of smoke upon the vehicle’s return and that the vehicle was out of service for four days being cleaned and deodorized,” she said.

Dungan said this was the first time a third employee had been added to the equation; all his previous exchanges with the company featured two cigarette-smelling workers.

He also was surprised it took four days to clean and deodorize the car. Not only does this suggest a ton of cigarettes had been consumed, but all other service reps had said the car would be out of commission for 24 hours.

Dungan is now disputing the charge with his credit card company but isn’t hopeful he’ll prevail. After all, it’s his word against that of a billion-dollar corporation. Why should his card issuer believe him over Hertz?

“It’s all just so infuriating,” he said.

It’s also a reminder to the rest of us to add smell to the usual inspection of a rental vehicle’s dings and dents. Poke your head inside and give it a whiff before driving off the lot.

But here’s why Hertz doesn’t seem to be seeing the forest for the trees: As the company gets back on its financial feet, it’s counting on the loyalty of customers to restore it to health.

Telling a member of your rewards program that he’s a cheat and a liar doesn’t seem like the most surefooted way of building trust.

Dungan told me his days as a Hertz Gold Plus member are numbered. On his next business trip, he said, he’ll be renting wheels from another firm.

“I’ve heard good things about Enterprise,” he said.